Your Beautiful New Home

Welcome to the City Hall you thought would never come

Austin's new city hall … and <i>the pointy thing</i>
Austin's new city hall … and the pointy thing (Photo By John Anderson)

Making allowances for the hurry-up pace of our silicon city and our digital age, one wonders if the good folks of, say, Rheims felt back in the 13th century about their cathedral the way we'll feel this Saturday about our City Hall – "My God! It's actually done! It's really there!" and so on. Actually, the first completed chunk of Rheims Cathedral took 22 years to build, which is less time than Austin has spent planning and then building a City Hall on Block 3 of its original downtown. Generations of Austinites have now coursed through the city's annals waiting for a proper City Hall to be built some day.

And here it is. A momentous occasion, worthy of proper ceremony. But first, let's talk about the pointy thing.

Philip Reed, project architect
Philip Reed, project architect (Photo By John Anderson)

The new Austin City Hall has a lot of design features that make it a Landmark and an Icon and Not Your Grandpa's Government Building, but the one that seems to have grabbed most people's attention is, well, the pointy thing – what the city simply refers to as a "point," and what architect Antoine Predock calls the "stinger," the copper-clad extrusion that sticks out nearly 50 feet from the building and 40 feet over Second Street. It's tempting to assume the stinger was added to the design as a favor to our Doug Potter and the daily's Ben Sargent, so they can draw Will Wynn or Toby Futrell or some hapless activist being dangled from it or impaled on it, but such is not the case. So why is it there?

Well, it does serve a real, though subordinate, functional purpose: it provides a roof for the "marquee" balcony below, a lookout (open to the public) over the future bustle of the exciting Second Street district, at least as it's envisioned by city planners. (The portion of hype being given to this balcony, as a design feature, is undercut by the fact that, like most of the individual elements of City Hall, it's not really very big. It will, however, be a great place for the queen or the pope to stand and wave to the crowds, should they find themselves hanging out in the Warehouse District.)

But the need for a roof, of course, does not explain the almost-violent gesture of a pointy thing sticking out into the street. Nor is it really explained by the oft-discussed goal of Predock and his local partners, Cotera+Reed Architects, to take their design cues from the landscape. As a whole, City Hall is in fact more successful than many had expected in achieving that correspondence with Austin as a natural place. You don't really need Predock's notes in hand to perceive that City Hall, with its water and limestone and wood, its irregular curves and corners and "strata," and its canyonlike central lobby and atrium, is a stylized and heavily engineered homage to an Austin creekscape, with shiny copper filling the role of the hot sun. Which makes the pointy thing stand out even more.

Your Beautiful New Home
Photo By John Anderson

And that, if you will, is the point. The stinger becomes a bit less arbitrary once one enters the building, from either side, and can tell that its point is the logical convergence of the lines of the angled walls of the lobby. From the beginning, the City Hall design aimed to create tension and interest – and ultimately take the path of least resistance to Iconic significance – by playing games with the grid, creating a landscape out of what is a regular, constrained downtown block, and deviating from the Lego-like regularity of its CSC and AMLI siblings. Most of those gestures, though, bring the building away from the street and sidewalk, drawing us in; the stinger – a relatively late addition in the design cycle – thrusts it out into Austin's face. "It's a hand in the air," says architect Phil Reed, noting that the stinger can be seen all the way down Second Street in each direction, from the Convention Center to Seaholm Power Plant. "It's a way of expressing monumentality. It's literally shouting 'Here I am!'"

History, Nature, Time

Admittedly, a four-story, 115,000-square-foot building in today's Downtown needs to work a little harder to draw attention to itself, which, given the history of the City Hall project, is an indispensable goal. City government burst its seams decades ago at the old Municipal Building at Eighth and Colorado, the site of every prior Austin City Hall dating back to the 1850s (before which it was the site of the first State Capitol). The current Art Moderne structure was Austin's major Depression-era WPA project, and it shows; its cold, peeling dankness has done much in recent years to keep city leaders humble.

That building, though, is a palace compared to the old Municipal Annex, a rat-infested pile of cheap brick handed down from the Texas Water Development Board, on the block that – back when it really was a Warehouse District and on the wrong side of the tracks – was the original home of Calcasieu Lumber. The city bought the Block 3 land back in the early 1970s because the Annex met its immediate space needs, and only then decided Block 3 would be a good focal point for a proper civic center, acquiring the surrounding blocks for that purpose and building a "temporary" City Council Chambers in midblock, right about where the stinger is now, that ended up serving Austin for more than 25 years.

To make a very long (albeit very interesting) story very short, in the generations between conception and execution, the world around Austin City Hall has turned upside down at least once. What was once envisioned as a bulky centralized home for the broad scope of municipal endeavor – prior City Hall proposals were up to four times the size of the new building – has become the diminutive nerve center of a permanently distributed (and thus, now, elaborately networked) city government. And what was originally its worn-out industrial slum of a neighborhood – that a civic center was intended to revitalize – is now the Acme of Hip, its bricks and mortar no longer cheap. The two reversals turned in tandem; because the Warehouse District took off, the city's holdings became too valuable to completely devote to a major City Hall complex and banish from the tax rolls. Hence CSC and so on.

A sapling propagated from the Treaty Oak forms the 
centerpiece – surrounded by seating and stonework 
with cosmic-symbolic overtones – of the Art in Public 
Places project in the new City Hall plaza. Wood from 
the Treaty Oak is also incorporated into the new City 
Council dais.
A sapling propagated from the Treaty Oak forms the centerpiece – surrounded by seating and stonework with cosmic-symbolic overtones – of the Art in Public Places project in the new City Hall plaza. Wood from the Treaty Oak is also incorporated into the new City Council dais.

As a case study in Austin politics, the City Hall saga is far from inspirational. But as a piece of architecture and urban design, today's City Hall is lucky to be free of its former baggage; by the time ground was broken, the only real imperative facing its design and construction team was that it be a cool and distinctive building that people would like. From the City Council's original nod to Antoine Predock – about the biggest marquee name in contemporary architecture the City Hall project could have attracted – through the highly public ("terminally democratic" in Predock's now-famous phrase) refinement of its design, as well as in its program, its technological appurtenances, its construction led by Hensel Phelps (the city's first use of a "construction manager at-risk" contract in lieu of the usual low-bid), and its eventual budget of $56.7 million, the city has eschewed few opportunities to make City Hall special and groovy and even a little Weird.

"You can't create a building of this caliber," says Reed, "without the confidence and support of the owner, which is the city. We don't always get that."

The business about responding to the landscape, which is Predock's hallmark, and by extension to Austin's claims to uniqueness, is one of three principles the City Hall design drives home. In perhaps the most charming nod to Austincentrism, the council dais – constructed, like most of the building's extensive woodwork and custom cabinetry, of polished but unstained pecan wood – features a band of wood from the Treaty Oak. This inlay is "placed where most council members may rest their hands," the city's press kit notes, "thus putting them in touch with the city's history as they decide its future." (Awww!) A sapling propagated from the Treaty Oak is also the focal point of the Art in Public Places project that anchors the southwest corner of the plaza, in which the baby tree is surrounded by stonework of natural and cosmic significance (sun, moon, planets, and so on) that will naturally weather, or erode, as the tree grows. If the tree takes after its mother, it'll be growing long after the 100-year design life of City Hall has expired.

Sun, Glass, Wirelessness

City Manager Toby Futrell will have the best view of the Baby Treaty Oak from her corner office on the third floor, but lots of people will have an equally good view of Futrell; her office (like Mayor Will Wynn's) opens directly onto the two-story terrace overlooking the plaza. (Yes, of course, the windows are tinted, but not that much.) Contrary to previous reports, this is hardly a "private balcony"; even though it's not open to you and me, it will be plenty accessible to hundreds of employees, and it's plenty visible from the public spaces adjacent to it, both inside and out. (The quickest way to travel between the mayor's and manager's offices would be via the outdoor stairway between the terraces, which might be entertaining for the folks with front-row seats in the CSC offices across Guadalupe Street.)
Your Beautiful New Home
Photo By John Anderson

This speaks to another of the three design principles – Austin's demand for public transparency and accountability, "government in the sunshine" taken to a literal extreme. And perhaps a painful one, if you're in Futrell's south-facing window-walled office on a hot August day. Project manager Fred Evins notes that blinds were cut from the project due to budget constraints, but he expects them to be added back in. Provisions have already been made for window coverings for the council's private executive-session room, which has floor-to-ceiling windows facing Guadalupe at ground level.

Meanwhile, Wynn's colleagues' council offices – each now has a window – face the open-to-all-24/7 side of the plaza and terraces, though an intervening landscape bed might grow in enough to discourage rude staring at Brewster McCracken. (If we ever get more than six council members, the overflow will displace the city's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office, in its suite at the building's northwest corner, behind the mayor and beneath the Public Information Office.) They will also get a good view of the stage that anchors the east side of the plaza and can in this way get their live-music fixes and perhaps help exorcise the restless and rootless spirits escaped from Liberty Lunch.

Inside, since the canyon lobby extends all the way up to the roofline, traffic from the east to west wings of City Hall – say, from mayor to council, or from the city manager to her budget office – is carried via skybridges that, again, expose our elected and appointed leaders to public view. (This may not be an intentional bit of Austin iconography, but these bridges, with their lighting recessed into grooves underneath, recall the underside of the Congress Avenue bridge, where the bats live.) Most of the City Hall meeting rooms are arrayed along, and in one case cantilevered into, the canyon, and glass is everywhere. As gratifying as this all may be to the municipal ethos, it's hard not to imagine that the players themselves might begin to feel like hamsters in a Habitrail; in the only obvious concession to privacy, there is a back-of-the-house suite of hideouts behind the council chambers, accessible by a nonpublic (though, again, visible) stairway from the mayor-and-council zone on the second floor.

Your Beautiful New Home
Photo By John Anderson

Security, though, is reputedly well-covered, partly through design tricks (the surrounding boulders, which at first seem simply a landscape feature, are also barriers to malevolent vehicles), but mostly through advanced technology – that being the third principle, that City Hall be totally wired (and wireless) and leading-edge and smart and thus befitting of Austin's self-concept. Compared to the Municipal Building, or most other aging Austin facilities, it wouldn't take much to represent a major improvement, and in some cases – such as the complete overhaul of Channel 6, and the ample media facilities built into City Hall – the new building jumps several generations of intervening technology.

A Turning Point?

Likewise with its security apparatus (Smile! You're on camera!), its sustainability enhancements (for example, the waterfall recycles the condensation from the air-conditioning) and energy management (including solar panels shading the seating for the outdoor stage), and its safety systems. Regarding the latter, we don't recommend you try this – it's a clean-air city, after all – but if one should happen to walk in from the Second Street balcony without properly extinguishing one's cigarette, the resulting activation of the fire-suppression system is reportedly spectacular to behold.

With City Hall's motion-controlled lighting, flat-panel monitors, touch-screen controls, swipe-card access systems, and other gizmos, it's hard not to entertain HAL-inspired fantasies of the building locking Futrell and Wynn down in a closet by the loading dock and running the city by itself. Even things that are not themselves digital are technological – such as the expanses of highly machined copper (around 66,000 square feet), including the light fixtures in the council chambers, set in polished copper forms likened to both clouds and bats that do double duty as sound baffles. Though the copper, glass, and limestone cladding is all artfully assembled, it's not intended to be seamless; in more than one place (like in the council chambers, which has no drop ceiling) you can effectively see the building's guts hanging out.

While the oak tree grows, the copper will oxidize, though it's not expected to turn green, but rather gray in about 30 years. By that time, one can only hope, the Second Street District (including a cafe and storefront space built into City Hall's ground level) will actually be as bustling as the city hopes, and we might have rail once again where the rail used to be across Downtown, and the remaining missing pieces will have been cemented into Austin's mosaic of urban ambitions. For at least the last few years, many urban-design types in Austin have seen the City Hall project as a missed opportunity for the city to lead, rather than follow, its own downtown-renewal parade.

But there are still options. Most obviously, city-owned Block 21, due north across Second Street, was intended to be home to a third CSC building, identical to the present two. But that ain't happening, and the city's visions for the property – it's currently entertaining five different development proposals – have largely been driven by Block 21's hospitality to the big and the lucrative. That poses the danger of a big and garish project – like Frost Bank Tower, but much worse – stomping all over the artful little City Hall. But it also creates an opportunity for the new Block 21 to have its own stinger, reaching across newly narrowed Second Street and completing the circuit carrying energy through the new Downtown. "I really hope," says Philip Reed, "that whatever goes on Block 21 does respond, in some way, to this building." end story

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